Celebrating Black Innovators: Week 3

Jessica O. Matthews

What do a soccer ball, a jump rope, a speed bump, and even a sidewalk have in common?

Each of these common objects can now be used to harness the power of kinetic energy thanks to the vision of Jessica O. Matthews. a young innovator who has been breaking race and gender barriers in the infrastructure and technology industries for more than a decade.

At just 22, she founded Uncharted, an award-winning company in the renewable energy space that helps cities and developers reduce the cost and complexity of their infrastructure to create truly smart, sustainable, and equitable cities.

Called “the Elon Musk of kinetic energy” by former U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith, her groundbreaking research and career center around the intersection of disruptive technology, renewable energy, human behavior, and the psychology of self-actualization.

A dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States, Jessica has a degree in psychology and economics from Harvard University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Jessica Matthews poses with her first invention - the Soccket

During a trip to Nigeria, while attending her aunt’s wedding she witnessed a frequent occurrence — a power outage – which required the locals to turn to diesel-powered generators for electricity. The generators ran for long periods of time, often in the same vicinity as children playing soccer. Concerned about the children breathing in diesel fumes, Matthews brainstormed how she could make a difference.

Upon returning to Harvard, Matthews, and classmate Julia Silverman created SOCCKET — a soccer ball that harnesses and stores kinetic energy. The soccer ball was designed so efficiently that playing with it for just half an hour generated enough energy to power an LED light for up to three hours. This allowed kids in developing countries to turn their favorite pastime into a way to provide enough light to do homework once it got dark. It was also endorsed by former President Bill Clinton.

Shortly after, Matthews created another power-generating toy — a jump rope that produces up to three hours of power for an LED with just fifteen minutes of jumping.

Jessica’s success in entrepreneurship led to a White House invitation from President Barack Obama to represent small companies for the signing of the America Invents Act in 2012.

President Obama and Jessica play with the Soccket at an event in Tanzania

In 2016, she raised $7 million dollars, which was at the time the largest Series A round ever raised by a black female founder in history. Using a patented suite of solutions, Uncharted Power builds, owns, and operates infrastructure to provide power and data services throughout the world that are clean, safe, and low cost. The company focuses on smart city infrastructure planning, and now has 12 patented or patent-pending systems.

In 2021, Jessica was officially appointed by Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm to the Electricity Advisory Committee to advise the Department of Energy on the future of the smart grid and modernizing our nation’s electricity delivery system.

Her list of accolades includes Fortune’s Most Promising Women Entrepreneurs, Forbes 30 Under 30, Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 and Female Founders 100, Harvard University Scientist of the Year, One Young World Entrepreneur of the Year, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, and Black Women Tech Talk’s Tech Trailblazer Award. She has appeared on the cover of Forbes and Forbes Africa, as well as featured in Marie Claire, Wired, Inc., TechCrunch, The New York Times, and Fast Company, among others.

Jessica’s unique triumph as an African American female founder serves as a leading example for others struggling to succeed in traditional industries. Her motto "succeed not regardless of who you are, but because of who you are unapologetically" encourages groups to embrace differences and recognize challenges can provide solutions if you let them.

George Washington Carver

Did you know that George Washington Carver was a black man? Most people don't know that because his story is rarely taught in schools. He is best known for his work with peanuts, but he also was a scientist, educator, and inventor who did groundbreaking work in the field of agriculture.

Carver was born into slavery in Missouri to Mary and Giles, slaves owned by Moses and Susan Carver. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but it is estimated to have been around the mid-1860s. One week after he was born, George, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by farm raiders to be sold in Kentucky. He was found and returned to Moses Carver's farm, but sadly his mother and sister were not found.

George Washington Carver's Portrait is permanently displayed at the Smithsonian Institute

The Carver family decided to raise George and his brother. Susan taught them to read and write at home because no schools accepted black students. The young Carver's fascination with nature and plants blossomed early, and by the age of 12, he was known as "the plant doctor" in the farming community. He chose the name George Carver instead of continuing to be called Carver's George when he enrolled in a school for black children. George finished high school in Kansas but was not admitted to Highland College because of his race.

At Iowa State Agricultural College, George became the first black student to enroll in the botany program. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree and, in 1896, obtaining a Master's degree, he established himself as an outstanding botanist.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, noticed George Carver's accomplishments and hired him as head of the institute's agricultural department.

"GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER AND BOOKER T. WASHINGTON IN CARVER’S LABORATORY" - as displayed at the DuSable Museum of African American History

Carver's research and work centered on creating alternative uses for common crops, particularly peanuts and sweet potatoes. In 1914, when the boll weevil threatened cotton production, Carver developed numerous products and procedures that expanded Southern agriculture.  At Tuskegee, Carver developed his crop rotation method, which alternated nitrate-producing legumes such as peanuts and corn with cotton, which depletes the soil of its nutrients.  His innovations have been credited with the South’s economic survival in the early part of the 20th century.

During World War I, there was a lack of crops and food, and Carver began finding new uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, and yes—peanuts.  He derived hundreds of products from the peanut primarily used at the time to feed livestock--including plastics, synthetic rubber, and paper.  Carver developed a process to produce paints and stains from soybeans, for which he received three distinct patents.  Among Carver's many synthetic discoveries are adhesives, axle grease, bleach, chili sauce, dyes, flour, instant coffee, shoe polish, shaving cream, vanishing cream, wood stains and fillers, linoleum, meat tenderizer, metal polish, milk flakes, and Worcestershire sauce.  In all, he developed 300 products from peanuts and 118 from sweet potatoes, in addition to new products from waste materials including recycled oil, and paints and stains from clay.

Carver remained deeply committed to education. Because of his humble beginnings, he spent his entire life helping poor farmers, especially African-Americans, improve their crops and get out of poverty, never accepting compensation for his advice. Carver promoted crop rotation, which explains why peanuts became such an important source of his innovations. He encouraged the development of crops that fix nitrogen, promoting the creation of nutrient-rich soils and, thus, healthy crops.

George Carver became so well-known for his work that president Franklin D. Roosevelt looked to him for advice on agricultural matters. In 1916, Carver became a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, which is a very rare honor given to Americans. Along with his duties at Tuskegee, Carver was appointed a collaborator at USDA’s Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey of the Bureau of Plant Industry.  Refusing several high-salaried job offers, Carver remained on the Tuskegee faculty until his passing in 1943, working for $125 per month. He is buried next to his friend and colleague Booker T. Washington. Shortly After his death, his entire savings of $30,000 was given to Tuskegee Institute for the study of soil fertility and the continued creation of useful products from waste materials.

A monument was dedicated in Carver's honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt near his hometown of Diamond, Missouri. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African-American.

In his epitaph, he summarized his beliefs and the humble philosophy by which he lived: "He could have added fame to fortune, but he was more grateful for being of service to others." He remains a symbol of African-American achievement, scientific achievement, and the transformative power of education to this day.

Hazel O'Leary

Hazel O’Leary, from 2004 to 2013, served as the seventh Secretary of Energy in US history, and, most notably, as the first African American and woman to lead the Department of Energy (DOE). O’Leary’s pioneering achievement marked an important step forward not only in the transparency of US energy practices, but in engaging minority communities who are classically underrepresented in sustainability discussions.

Hazel O'Leary as the first and only African American woman to serve as the US Secretary of Energy

Before her nomination to the DOE in 1993, Hazel served both the Ford and Carter administrations, first as director of the Federal Energy Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs - where she often challenged the power and influence of major energy producers (https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/o-leary-hazel-rollins-reid-1937/)  - and later as head the Department of Energy’s Economic Regulatory Administration.

In 1997, while acting as the head of the Economic Regulatory Administration, O’Leary lobbied for and successfully passed the Fuel Use Act, which developed conservation programs that assisted low-income residents.

Hazel deepened her understanding of the utility energy landscape from 1989-1993 while acting as executive vice president for environmental and public affairs of a large Minnesota utility and then president of its natural gas division. This experience, combined with her legacy of challenging the status quo in favor of conservation, led to her nomination as Secretary of Energy in 2003.

While in this office, Hazel led the 20,000 employee agency, developing the energy policy for the Clinton Administration while emphasizing conservation and innovation. In addition, Hazel declassified numerous nuclear files that hid secret radiation testing on US citizens, spearheaded initiatives to accelerate environmental cleanup, and opposed energy tax increases.

After leaving politics, Hazel became president of her alma mater, Fisk University in Nashville, and serves on the board of directors for nonprofit organizations such as the Nashville Alliance for Public Education, the Nashville Business Community for the Arts, the Arms Control Association, and as a trustee on boards of the World Wildlife Fund, Morehouse College, and The Andrew Young Center of International Development.

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